Only a few kms now to the southern end of Lake Pukaki which is very rough with a powerful wind blowing down the lake. Mt Cook at the top of the lake is completely clouded in. The road crosses the Tekapo canal which is the most amazing turquoise - I think from the pale concrete base, just like a blue water swimming pool - then passes the Tekapo Military camp. The many austere looking little huts making up the camp, impart the thought that a very hardy constitution would be required to survive here. Tekapo village itself has increased since our 1980s visit but not by much. The Church of the Good Shepherd is, of course, the most well known Tekapo landmark and our base for the next 2 nights is nearby. The Tekapo Cottages are OK - just. Saved by clean linen and a heat pump. Our individual studio cottage is adequate but, why in a location where winter temperatures can be below zero, have a bathroom wall heater and a portable fan heater, both non runners? As winter comes on and temperatures fall, heatpumps take a while to crank up, so at Tekapo Cottages getup time could be a very cold experience.
There are a couple of moderate restaurants in Tekapo, MacKenzies and Reflections. We dine twice at night at MacKenzies and breakfast at Reflections. All very good experiences. MacKenzies offer 'Stonegrill' dining which involves a flat stone being heated to 400C and brought to the table with your choice of meat - chicken, lamb or beef. Ours is chicken. A raw, skinless, full chicken breast is presented sitting atop a hot stone sprinkled with rock salt. Unlike our past experiences with sizzling Asian dishes, this does not spit at us. 2 sets of cutlery are provided to avoid cross contamination of raw with cooked. Cutting the breast into thin strips, we lay them side down on the stone and they cook through in a couple of minutes. Different and delicious, this is served with a sate sauce, salad or hot vegetables.
Breakfast at Reflections is a good start for the day's attempt on Mt Cook and we set off with high hopes of visually scaling the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3754m.
Coming round the southern end of Pukaki, the northerly view is promising but as we get closer the cloud and chilling sweeping showers close out all but the nearest peaks. The Aoraki Park weather, however, is so changeable that waiting just a little time can be rewarding. A visit to the Old Mountaineers cafe is also rewarding, with 2 glasses of a quality pinot, 2 tasty cheese scones followed by freshly ground long blacks. The view from the cafe can be very different depending which window you are at. Definitely no doggies allowed in the park but Tammy is dying for a short trot so we put her lead on and very quietly give her 10 minutes around the edge of the carpark. No dognappers about and we carefully collect her offering.
During our 1980s visit we had stayed at the THC Hermitage Hotel, as it was then and still is now, as we can't spot any significant changes over the intervening years.
The Tasman Glacier road hooks off to the left taking us about 8-10kms, terminating at a carpark from where a couple of walks can be made to view the glacier. At all the glacier carparks there are signs 'don't feed the keas', but we have not spotted even 1 kea. Keas were a menance in all these places, 25 years ago so have they got the message - 'don't come, there's no food', or has something more dire happened? The Tasman Glacier walk is a must, a little arduous and treacherous at the top end but the reward at the ridge is absolutely worth it. For us, off to the left the clouds part and Mt Cook peeks through.
On our way back down Lake Pukaki the fierce morning winds have died a little making a couple of photo stops possible. After passing around the bottom of the lake we turn left onto the Hayman/Braemar road which hugs the eastern lake shore. This takes us to the Tekapo 'B' power station from where the Tekapo Canal road goes off to the right. This is closed after a short distance but we get as far as Mt McDonald (780m) which gives a fine viewpoint. We then carry on the Braemar road which eventually joins SH8 again by the military camp but it is a long 30kms and not worthwhile after the road leaves the lake.
The Mt John Observatory, maintained by Canterbury University is a gem with the University maintaining 3 telescopes at the site. The US Air Force had an early hand in the stations establishment when it was used for satellite tracking. New Zealand's largest telescope is situated here, also the Astro cafe which has our high recommendation not to mention the view out over Tekapo. Observatory tours are available most nights.
Back to MacKenzies for our last night at Tekapo and our second tasty chicken stone grill experience.
We are away early for us in the morning, as our next night is Kekerengu - quite a way up the east coast past Kaikoura. A couple of interesting cottages at Burkes Pass then we take a left at Fairlie onto the Geraldine/Fairlie highway. A pleasant but slowish drive, much more built up as we approach the east coast. Geraldine is a pretty Canterbury town, starting life in the 1850s, now having a prosperous reputation based on the surrounding farming operations of varying types. We have a quick lunch at a local cafe which cannot be raved about, though next door the local Barkers jams and chutneys outlet tempts us with a few tasty, locally made items. The Mayfield/Valetta road connects us to SH77 and so to Methven, Windwhistle, past the Mt Hutt skifields, Glentunnel, Darfield and back to the outskirts of Christchurch. Aiming for Kekerengu before dark we don't stop as we pass through Kaiapoi, Woodend, Waipara, Cheviot, Hunderlee, where we remember stopping for a Conway riverside coffee on our 2013 upper South Island adventure. Kaikoura, Clarence and at last Kekerengu - phew what a drive, but we are here just in time for a very late afternoon coffee at the wonderful Kekerengu Store - always a pleasure. Our bed for the night is very close, just over the railway bridge, a left turn and 1 km down the road to Kekerengu Cottage - no relation to the Store. The Cottage is positioned within a delightful garden, itself within an established vineyard - 'Sleepers'. Lynne and Chris who have owned the property for a while now, live about 500 metres away through the vines. The cottage is extremely comfortable, retaining it's 1920s heritage but with today's conveniences. We have a lovely quiet night followed by an interesting chat with Lynne and Chris about the stunning cob houses they are carefully restoring. Works of art and dedication.
Today we are planning a slow drive to Picton for our last South Island night, via a Wairau River lunch. When we came here with Tammy last year this was such a good experience, we are really looking forward to visiting again. Tammy is remembered and warmly welcomed. When lunch service is over, Tammy is invited to meet Wairau River's Dachshund loving Chef. A rare treat for little Tammy! The grownups love it too!
I had wanted to visit the Omaka heritage aviation museum last year but we were too late in the day. The museum is all about World War 1 and contains all sorts of memorabilia with the main drawcard being the many full sized replicas of WW1 fighter planes. All this has been beautifully assembled by Sir Peter Jackson and his team from Weta Workshop.
30 kms to go to Picton where we find our last night's cottage accommodation down a dark, narrow back road behind Picton town. It's not so good and one we won't return to, but a Cortado dinner, in a very busy restaurant, raises our spirits. We are pleased when morning comes to leave and are out by 7:30 - wow that's early for us and back to Cortado, our favourite Picton establishment, for breakfast. We are on the 11am 'Arahura' and didn't realise until later that there had been ferry problems today with the rented 'Stella Allegra' having serious mechanical trouble. The 'Arahura' is slightly late because of this but gets us out into Queen Charlotte by 11:30. The 'Arahura' is the 'Queen Mary' compared to the 'Kaitaki', as passengers who prefer open air deck travel are remembered, with proper deck seating. We are loaded as the last vehicle squeezed onto the train deck with the sea door a metre or so in front. At least we'll be first off. Little Tammy is set up with treats, water and 'Bark' on the CD and is probably thinking - not again!
It's a sad goodbye to the south until next year but what a great 4000km journey we have enjoyed.